Brian Eno: Mother Whale Eyeless
tylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Songs aren’t whole. Beyond the MP3, they aren’t entities. Like spilled liquid, they take the form of their container alone. Pour them out and they finger anew, they slip into the soft spots of space, and they become the oddity of chaos. They’re split-end seconds of sound shuffled to bridge and chorus without rhyme or reason, like Bowie borrowing Burroughs and stuffing a hat with nouns and verbs arranged anon. Brian Eno’s best solo moments are famously strange for just this renegotiation of structure. The dude had Oblique Strategies cards to remind him of the hidden genius of error for fuck’s sake.
Eno mastered this discord with his second album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Whistling troubadours step out of the fields to shuffle with martial drums and myriad synths, all ringing against their efforts in a pit of fine excess. Tick-tacked drum machines draw out the five o’clock shadowing on numbingly insistent bass-lines. There are spiderwebs hissing sometimes, as there would be later, and there are microfilms of textured rhythms that show no shadows. Choruses persist in piety, though men become crows; they all live in Jesus—don’t we all—and it’s a family affair. As always, there’s plenty of room for interpretation, and more important, for misinterpretation.
Sonically, Taking Tiger Mountain is an extraordinary headphone album. As a work of fracture, moments gurgle through the veins of your favorite song and give it new juice. Each track wobbles on a pell-mell of instrumental nuance. There’s so much clockwork at play beneath the surface that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking to it scorching-bath style; slow sliding is the order of the day. That part, that section, right here, wait on it, it’s right after this, there, can you hear that, Jesus, let me go back. But for the purposes of this column, I’m concerned only with certain seconds; you may not have memorized the passage, but you’ll know when I refer to the blissful choral break of “Mother Whale Eyeless.”
Beginning with its paranoiac bassline and Munchian electronic tones, the drums, pushed up in the mix, move the song from eccentric palefreak to floor-ready groove, albeit with a pulse not many others could shoulder with such odd verve. The song’s narrative is perplexed, unreadable; it treks through a day or two without clock, owing as much to Joyce’s top-brain dialogues as Burroughs’ deconstruction. Moving in stages, Eno’s voice grabs hold just when the track begins to seem a little too crisply laundered, giving it his skin-clam crawl, “This is for the fingers/this is for the nails/hidden in the kitchen/right behind the scales.”
But just as the song threatens to shed tone for word—at 1:51 for those of you scoring at home—layered electric piano chords and a punchy bass progression cut abruptly to the bridge. The sound lingers for a few bars to set the break, and a buried chorus spills up through the spoil: “In the sea there is a whale without any eyes/in my whale there is a man without his raincoat.” And you ask who’s telling this story now, who’s taken over page and cover and wrinkled this tale with their helium-breath, and Eno’s back, coins under his eyes and hair on his knuckles, to speak anew of foreign countries with names unknown. After a scant minute and six seconds, the sands sift over the shells again and Eno winks at you in sailor’s cloth now; he had you at the word ‘mirage.’
Yet, in some ways, “Mother Whale”’s brief sidestep addresses Eno’s powers more adroitly than any allmusic career summary. His peculiar soundscapes get the upper-lip wax to reveal a plump set of smackers. The album would prove it later if you needed the reminder; the title track that closes the album is this mesmeric release given full-track sprawl, drawn out, naked and dieting on coconut milk. If Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) the most toxic pop record from Eno’s golden period, these moments are his Methadone, showing you the needle, falsely filled, in the cold brick of sanatorium. Almost meticulous in its step out of the ordinary, he showcases his taste for excess by stark contrast with this tolerant restraint. Like a three-card monte hustler, relying on the eye to move in static against the hand, Eno watches as your brain loses four-straight to the ear. Confusion is the mark, unusual beauty the draw, and he’s got you from both angles, kids.